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Building Bridges Across Time and Distance

By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

We’ve lived through a unique moment in human history. We’re likely the last generation that will remember a time before mobile phones or personal computers — before we could communicate with anyone, acquire virtually any piece of information, in seconds.

Having seen this sea change firsthand, we should have a sense of how profoundly new communication technologies can change society. But this isn’t the first time technology advances have reshaped human interactions. Take the completion of the first transatlantic undersea cable in 1858.

Before then, sending a message across the ocean took weeks — a communication lag that presented major barriers to international commerce and diplomacy. In fact, it could be deadly. History Magazine describes the final battle of the War of 1812, in which nearly 3,000 U.S. and British soldiers were killed or injured:

“It was a decisive victory for the U.S. but there was one major problem: the Treaty of Ghent ending the war had been signed on 24 December 1814 — about two weeks prior to the battle! Neither side was aware that the war was over.”

You might think contemporary observers would be disturbed by the tragedy of this, but it barely seemed to register. Breathless accounts and paintings depicted the glorious victory of the American forces over Britain, and people celebrated the battle for years.

Why no ambivalence about a battle that, technically, never had to be fought? Because the notion that a war can be “over” the moment pen is put to paper on a peace treaty is a modern convention. For most of history, wars ended when news of a peace accord reached commanders in the field, and not a minute before.

In this light, you can appreciate how radically the transatlantic telegraph cable changed civilization. Suddenly, Europe and North America could exchange information in mere minutes (or at least hours).

The technology transformed people’s sense of the larger world and their connection to it. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper commented on August 28, 1858:

“In chronicling so great an event, it is impossible to calculate its results upon the world…. we can truly say that there is no longer, an Atlantic to divide the Old and New Worlds; and when two great nations, are thus brought within speaking distance, the bold broad facts of national policy are more easily comprehended -- or, if misunderstood, the error can be immediately corrected…. in this light the Atlantic cable may be called the Great Peacemaker between the two chief nations on the globe.”

In “The Atlantic Cable,” Ben Dibner’s 1959 account of the transatlantic cable and its chief architect, Cyrus Field, Dibner notes:

“When Mr. Field arrived at his desk every morning, he found spread before him the noon quotations of the Royal Exchange in London. Only minutes now separated the two great capitals….

The economic advantages of the telegraph were reflected in reduced inventories that merchants had to carry, because they were made more clearly aware of world market conditions by the quick exchange of information…. Better knowledge replaced the speculation and hoarding that always went hand-in-hand with ignorance and uncertainty.”

Yes, today we have a truly global economy, but we should realize this is not a radical new concept. It’s just the latest fruits of seeds planted more than 150 years ago, when a copper cable brought people separated by an ocean into the same present reality for the first time, and made actions taken on the other side of the world matter in the here and now.

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